A Parent's Guide: Meditate With Toddlers And Teens To Improve Emotional Intelligence And Resilience

classroom management  emotional intelligence  positive parenting 

By Ashley Patek

Meditation Transforms Young Minds And It's Not Too Early To Start

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), behavior problems, anxiety, and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children. In fact, one in six children ages 2 to 8 years have been diagnosed with a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.

Even though today’s kids exhibit elevated levels of restlessness, stress, and anxiety, only 1.6% of children in the U.S. meditate. Several studies suggest that kids who practice mindfulness develop increased self-control, more empathy, better focus, and enhanced academic performance. In addition, meditation has been shown to help children manage stress, depression, and hyperactivity, and overcome trauma.

Catherine Wilde, Kids Yoga & Meditation Teacher states, “Similar to adults, children are inundated with information on a daily basis. In our fast-paced, multitasking world, it can be incredibly helpful for children to learn to slow down, breathe deeply, clear their minds, and practice mindfulness.” 

Meditation Is For Every Age

Parents often defer meditation with their toddlers in belief that they will be unable to sit long enough to participate, however childhood development experts suggest that a reasonable attention span for most children is two to three minutes per year of their age. A general guideline to follow may look like this: 

  • Preschool children: A few minutes per day.
  • School-aged children: 3-10 minutes one to two times a day.
  • Teens and adults: 5-40 minutes per day or more based on preference.

“It’s important to remember that kids can meditate and still be kids,” says Sarah Roffe, LCSW, CCLS, a co-founder and psychotherapist at Kind Minds Therapy. “Sure, they may wiggle around or laugh the first few times, but this is when practice and patience are key.” 

Ways To Practice Meditation With Your Child 

1. Teach when regulated. 

Laura Vogel, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, and director of therapeutic services at Momentous Institute says that it is important to practice with kids while they are regulated because, in doing so, they will be more equipped to access these skills when feeling overwhelmed. “Building mindfulness skills when kids are receptive to learning will help them call upon them when they are dysregulated and in their survival brain. We must first teach the skills in order for them to be accessed.”

2. Create a ritual. 

Roffe suggests making meditation a family norm. “The more it is part of your routine, the easier it will be to implement and normalize it as a part of your child’s daily ritual,” she says. Make it a wake-up or bedtime practice when kids and parents are less likely to have competing responsibilities. 

3. Focus on breath and body connection. 

“Children as young as 3 or 4 years of age can learn breathing techniques that allow them to feel a change in their bodies,” says Vogel. Finger breathing, box breathing, or simply noticing their belly move up and down as they take deep breaths helps to build these skills. 

Once children are familiar with their breath, encourage them to practice in daily moments. 

  • Support toddlers in taking a breath when they are upset and tantruming. 
  • Prompt a grade school child to take a deep breath before answering a difficult question in class. 
  • Help a teen calm nerves by taking deep breaths before playing in a big game. 

4. Meet your child where they are. 

Your starting point is whatever your child can do comfortably. Wherever they are, start there and slowly add layers to expand the skill. With toddlers, sit next to your child, doing the meditation along with them and modeling the skills. When it comes to teens, Roffe says, “It’s great if you can join them, but it’s also okay to help them create a quiet space for themselves that provides a safe environment for self-connection and allows them an opportunity to be grounded and focus on having the unpleasant thoughts from the day escape their minds.” 

5. Have guidance. 

There are various types of meditation - mindfulness, mantra, movement, and guided, to name a few. Guided meditation is a gentle way to lead your child into a relaxed state. Depending on the age, the guidance can be imaginative and playful, or it can be focused on specific pain points such as decreased anxiety or improved sleep. Generation Mindful has created a guided meditation to help children calm their bodies, hearts, and minds while learning about emotional regulation and the 7 PeaceMakers themes of Power, Joy, Balance, Love, Peace, Intuition, and Forgiveness.

Benefits Of Child Meditation 

Various studies have indicated the neurological and physiological benefits of meditation practices. Let’s take a look at the benefits for all ages.  

1. Changes the agriculture of the brain

Research has shown that when children make meditation a regular practice, it affects the brain centers for emotional regulation and executive functioning. University of Pennsylvania scientist, Dr. Andrew Newberg, took brain images of Tibetan Monks during meditation to find that their frontal lobes lit up with meditative practices, and another study found that kids who learned mindful awareness practices had better executive function after eight weeks of training twice a week. More research also indicates that the parietal lobe slows down during meditation, allowing children to process information more clearly. 

2. Nurtures emotional regulation

Mindfulness is intimately connected to self-awareness and self-regulation. Often, children have a challenging time transitioning from an unpleasant emotion to a pleasant one. Meditation helps children become aware that they can work through those hard feelings, process them, and learn from them. 

“Meditation does a lot for self-regulation,” says Ali Smith, co-founder of the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, which helped create the Mindful Moment and Holistic Me program. “Kids that are really impulsive can learn to develop that pause between stimulus and reaction. They develop the skills to realize when they’re angry and when they feel stress arising, and they learn the tools to de-escalate themselves.” 

Mindworks meditation expert Trungram Gyalwa says that the more you give to those around you, the more you gain. “Children’s meditation helps them learn how to share their love with other children. They become more patient and understanding, listen more readily to others, and empathize with them.”

In regards to social-emotional learning, one study found that when coupled with mindfulness pursuits, children developed greater empathy, perspective-taking, and emotional control as compared to the control group using a classical “social responsibility” program. These children were more social with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than their counterparts. Ali shares, “What we have noticed is that when people aren’t empathic, when they aren’t kind to others, or their communities, it’s usually because they’re not connected to themselves.”

3. Decreases stress and anxiety

Due to fast-paced schedules, increased academic pressures, and less time outside in nature, children’s stress levels have been trending upward. When a child feels anxious, stress hormones such as cortisol are released and it activates a protective response of fight, flight, or freeze. Mindfulness exercises help children transition out of their sympathetic nervous system that comes online when stress and anxious feelings arise, and into their parasympathetic nervous system through regulation of breath, heart rate, and blood pressure. When children learn to focus on the present moment just as it is, they feel less need to avoid or resist their emotions without critical judgment, allowing them to be felt and managed. 

4. Builds resilience

Through meditation, children learn to better understand their mental and physical bodies, and how those entities of self are interconnected. In addition, they gain access to internal coping skills that allow for a pause to self-reflect and problem-solve through challenging situations. This awareness equips children with greater emotional and psychological resilience as they grow into adulthood. 

5. Increases focus

The heart of meditation is the art of focus. In a world where there are many distractions, it can be challenging for children to develop this skill, and therefore it takes repetition. When a child practices consciously shifting their attention inward, it’s the equivalent of their brain’s self-control muscles lifting weights. They are literally reinforcing and strengthening the neuropathways that underlie focus and self-control.

6. Bolsters academic achievement

Many schools are bringing mindfulness and meditation practices into their curriculums, as part of daily classroom rituals, and in replacement of detentions. In order to sit still, be quiet, and listen - in order to learn and focus - a child must feel safe and connected to oneself and others. Research has shown that meditation and mindful practices tick all of the boxes, helping children practice the foundations of higher-level learning skills which, in turn, enhances cognitive outcomes and academic performance.  

7. Shapes self-confidence 

Many kids struggle with a negative self-image and, as a result, experience diminished self-esteem. A review of 17 studies showed mindfulness-based interventions significantly raised self-esteem due to the emphasis on self-awareness and self-compassion. Confidence can develop through meditative practices as children discover that they have a choice - and control - over which thoughts and emotions merit their attention and response. Kids learn that right now is enough - they are enough - and the present moment is the only real moment to get through. Children become more adaptable and develop a deeper appreciation of self. 

8. Gives reprieve from trauma

A number of experts have highlighted that when children have experienced trauma, their bodies and minds are overwrought - stuck in a survival state of fight, flight, or freeze - which makes it near impossible for them to focus on higher-level skills of emotional regulation, problem-solving, focus, impulse control, and more. 

The practice of mindfulness helps children focus on one thought, sound, feeling, or breath, teaching kids to be in the here and now. For kids who experience trauma, this can provide a sense of safety. These practices can help pull children away from their fears and into a place of power and security. 

But, it is important to remember that those who have experienced traumatic events or live in it in their day to day, may require special considerations when initiating mediation rituals. “We always assume that kids have been through something because we don’t always know what’s going on. Sometimes they don’t even know,” says Smith. “So we always do movement first, then breathwork, then meditation. We never just walk into a room and say, ‘Hey, kids, let’s meditate.’ That empty space isn’t good for trauma.” 

Meditation gives children a pause to breathe and imagine and allows for processing feelings. Children become quiet enough to pull away from their outer world and tune into their inner world, getting to know and love who they are. Then, they learn that it is okay to feel whatever they feel, and be whoever they are.

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